December 9, 2012

More Russian

My last post was a self indulgent memoir about my time in Soviet Russia. Are you ready for another Russian themed post? This one is about a plant, so we are back on track, gardeners!

Russian sage is an easy-care, drought tolerant plant that is very popular. Everyone has it, and you see it growing everywhere. It is Perovskia atriplicifolia, a member of the mint family and not a salvia at all despite being called sage.

It was named for Vasily Alekseevich Perovski, a Russian diplomat from Turkestan, where the plant originates. I can't help it, I just saw Anna Karenina starring Keira Knightley at the movies, so I am all about 19th century Russia at the moment.

Gas stations and parking lot strips have Russian sage sitting in big forlorn clumps in mulch deserts. It's an overused plant that just looks tired to me, and I stopped noticing it long ago.

But then I saw this scene at Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Massachusetts last summer. Really, couldn't you imagine a 19th century countess sweeping down those stone steps, rustling the frothy purple spires as she passes?


When it is used well Russian sage in bloom is something to behold. By itself it is unkempt and weedy, and standing alone the haze of flowers looks grayish. Uninteresting.

But paired with strong dark colors, weighty stone steps, and the solid forms of large glossy leaves, its unruliness is tamed and the color is enriched. The whole plant is transformed.

Don't stick Russian sage in a spot by itself. Don't expect it to carry the visual weight of a garden or form the anchor of the design, even though it's big and purple. Russian sage needs to be tightly packed with other things. It adds airiness to the density of what surrounds it.

This plant needs companions, both for support to keep it from splaying, which it will do anyway, and for the color contrast that rich and dark tones nearby give it.

In a brand new garden bed I have planted some young, still wispy Russian sages with a clump of bright yellow black eyed Susans and a new mahogany colored redbud, 'Forest Pansy'.


I can't wait for this area to mature to see whether I'll achieve the effect of tamed wildness, dense structure, and rich contrast that made the combination I saw at Berkshire Botanical Garden so satisfying.

There are no dramatic stones or big glossy leaves here to counter the feathery purple blooms, though. Perhaps some fat leaved shiny bergenias below the redbud, unless it's too sunny for them? I am always weak on using bold foliage in my gardens and could use some help with that.


Russian sage is transformed by the plants around it, so give it bold friends nearby and good companions all around. And if you pass by in your Russian ballgown, on your way to a doomed romantic assignation, this lovely plant will rustle with your skirts.

 

38 comments:

  1. Laurrie, very interesting! I had some years ago Perovskia v.Filigran, I liked in my garden. It was enough high, purple and grew in a shadow place. That was badly for Perovskia, it's died. I think I have no suitable soil for this plant.

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    1. Nadezda, Russian sage wants full sun, so your shade was not good for it. Although in the picture I took at Berkshire Botanical Garden, it looks like the perovskia is growing in a shady area, doesn't it? And yet it is full and growing well.

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  2. You are right on! It is unfortunately used incorrectly in everyday commercial landscape use. I can see where people stop noticing it but, I have always been drawn to it for the reasons you listed above. I had some in a small garden plot at my condo and am excited to incorporate now at my house. Your garden bed is already stunning and the picture you took at the Berkshire Botanical Garden is amazing! Thanks for shedding new light on this lovely plant!

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    1. Nicole, I don't know why this lovely plant is used so poorly in commercial strips. It just calls out to be incorporated into fuller plantings. I hope you do get some planted at your house.

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  3. I love seeing that blue haze in the garden. I am enjoying your Russian Reminisce.

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    1. Lisa, blame it on seeing the movie Anna Karenina. I also saw Lincoln, but that didn't inspire any gardening memories for me. . . . although there was a lot of mud in the battle scenes. I could do something with that. Or not.

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  4. I see Russian Sage growing well in strip mall plantings with total neglect, yet it never quite takes off in my yard, even though it's hot and dry. I wonder what it really wants, conditions wise. I love how you've paired it with rudbeckia, the light purple is a great foil for the bold gold.

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    1. Julie, It certainly wants hot and dry, and you've given yours those conditions, so it's disappointing that they don't do well for you. Plenty of sun, lots of neglect. Maybe experiment with another spot?

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  5. Excellent post about how to most effectively use this over-used plant. I love it, too. Currently, I have a few new wisps as well, I'm hoping they take off. I agree, something with big leaves would look good below the redbud. I'm not sure about the Bergenia though. How about some Geranium phaeum 'Samobor'? It's not completely dark-leaved, but does have that nice dark splotch.

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    1. Alison, I have been very interested in the geranium phaeum since I saw it on a garden tour last summer. It might be a good contrast beneath the Russian sage. Thanks for the suggestion!

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  6. I don't have any Russian Sage but I remember recommending it to my MIL for its drought tolerance, for the Hell Patch in front of her house. That was '96, the year it rained every day that summer and then we got hit by Fran. The Russian Sage didn't make it. Eventually I stopped giving her gardening advice as it always went like that. lol

    Would have been a great plant for her any other year, as it really showed up against the boxwoods the builder planted.

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    1. Sweetbay, I like the idea of the Russian sage against the dense green boxwoods. Why won't the weather cooperate when we have such good ideas??

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  7. I have seen it planted solo, in huge quantities on a nearby farm, to perfection. Dozens of plants were growing in full sun beyond a patio high on a hillside in pretty awful soil. I think that is a good hint. It doesn't want rich soil. (I think that may be why the service stations are told to try it!) So full sun, in masses, dry area, poor soil. You need a big space for this! Think Piet Oudfolf!

    I would like to imitate that gorgeous stand. I'm tired of seeing it again and again with pink echinaceas. Maybe with swaths of other grasses and things. You've got me thinking.

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    1. Marie, that is exactly the right formula for this plant, and even though we think our gardens have crummy soil, it's still not the very lean rocky stuff that Russian sage really wants. That big mass on a hillside that you describe must be a show stopper.

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  8. My Russian sage looks more like an anorexic supermodel than a swishy ballgown. I've planted it in the wrong spot - twice. While it has survived, it needs a 360 of sun to help it fill out. If it has to compete with other plants, it will look pathetic and do an excellent "I'm about to die" impression. I think I've finally got it in the right spot, but only time will tell.

    I did some major pruning this weekend - chopped off the weird birch branch and it's even weirder friend and branch pruned several vertical trunks to the ground from the neighboring crepe myrtle to lighten the interior, which will give the birch more sun as well as all the underplantings. A majorly overgrown viburnum trilobum and a rose got a whack job, too. Hooray for Pruning Saw Saturday!

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    1. Tammy, I'm glad to hear about the successful pruning. I hope there will be some "after" photos. I am always surprised at how I dither and waver on any pruning, then when I just do it, it turns out fine. I like the relaxed look of your birch and crepe myrtle with the fence, but tidying them up was called for!

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  9. I've always liked Russian sage but oddly not in Texas but Colorado. It flourishes there and grows beautifully. Here it does okay but just doesn't have the same shapow as in CO. I didn't realize it was in the mint family ... interesting.

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    1. Cat, it's a perfect plant for Colorado and I saw it used well at Denver Botanic Garden (of course) this summer.

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  10. Russian sage is one of the first plants I used in my garden, and I've always loved it. But as you say, it works better with companions, not standing alone.

    I missed your earlier post on St. Petersburg, so I went back to read it. I was a college student for a short while in Germany in 1969, and I remember seeing so many men on the streets with crutches or missing a limb--sad reminders of WWII even then. We had several students who had just fled Czechoslovakia after the Soviet Union had taken over their country, and I remember thinking how brave they were, leaving their homeland behind to start a new life in a different country. Remembering the political climate of the time, I think you were very brave, too, to visit the Soviet Union in 1969. But your memories show that people are people everywhere, no matter what the government says or does. Enjoyed these posts!

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    1. Rose, thanks so much, and I loved hearing about you being in Germany back then. What strange and awful times Europeans lived through. I don't think we can imagine it, even having visited, briefly.

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  11. Oddly enough, Russian sage has always been bullet-proof in my garden, and I can kill just about anything! I too grow it with Rudbeckia, but the other classic combo in this area seems to be Russian sage and roses - beautiful!

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    1. Sarah, Russian sage with roses must be eye-catching The roses have dramatic colorful blooms and most have glossy foliage, so they would provide perfect contrast to the airy Russian sage.

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  12. I like seeing overused and cliche plants used in appropriate plantings and in exciting ways. It's like saying, " SEE! This plant CAN be beautiful!"
    I guess it's akin to cheering for the underdog's of the plant kingdom.
    I like to take Yews and hand prune them into beautiful bonsai like shrubs or long soft hedges, rich with the texture and various hues of green that come from within the plant. Proclaiming, "these plants do not need to be subjugated to a sheared gumdrop blobs".

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    1. Forest Keeper, I agree the best surprises are the ones where we know the plant, but have never seen its beauty drawn out in such new ways. I want to see those yews trimmed the way you have --- anything but a green meatball! They must be beautiful and wonderfully surprising.

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  13. Laurrie, your fine designer's eye serves you well here: naturalistic and elegant at the same time. Also, I know a lot of people don't like it, but one of my favorite features in Russian sage is its fragrance when parts are crushed. But then I also love the smell of English boxwood.

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    1. Lee, the fragrance is not a highlight for me, but I do like the look of Russian sage in a full planting. It is never elegant by itself, but it does seem to work well as an elegant component somehow.

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  14. I love Russian sage - it's like a giant lavender to me. But the climate here is not conducive to it. Sulks and dies in the freezes and thaws of our springs. One plant I'll have to enjoy vicariously through you.

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    1. Marguerite, I like your description of this being like a big lavender! It really is, only richer looking, I think.

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  15. I don't have this plant, even though every time I see it I love it. I also like how you have planted it with the yellow black-eyed Susans.

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    1. HolleyGarden, thanks! I'm hoping the combination with the black eyed Susans is strong enough to show off the Russian sage to its best advantage.

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  16. I don't have any Russian Sage. For blue spiky plants I prefer Agastache, Salvias, and Adenophera. But as you say, it can look very good if in combination with the right partners.

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    1. Jason, I love the salvias and agastaches, but there is something more jewel like and hazy about Russian sage in a mass when blooming. But all of the blue spiky plants you mention are great ones to have in the garden.

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  17. I'm with Lee - I think the fragrant (but somewhat sticky) foliage is one of the nicest attributes of Russian Sage.

    When it is in full bloom, the bees in my garden cover the plants all day, and I tend to look favorably on any plant that is pollinator-friendly.

    Unfortunately, my Russian Sage did not do very well this past year, despite a hot, dry summer with lots of sun.

    I'm thinking that the heavy clay soil and our wet winters may kill the plants. (I amended the soil a bit, but probably not enough.)

    My guess is that Russian Sage might only thrive in Middle Tennessee in a raised bed or a hillside with excellent drainage?

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    1. Aaron, so many commenters have said that Russian sage doesn't do well in their gardens-- I did not think of it as a fussy plant, but perhaps it does want very specific conditions (probably lean, dry soil and neglect!)

      Wet winters are the hardest condition to work with.

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